February 28, 2016 | Madison, Alabama
The rally was a spectacle. The air was filled with anticipation as Republican Presidential front-runner Donald J. Trump was coming to town. The Madison City School’s football stadium parking lot was decorated in red Republican-friendly clothing, Trump apparel and street vendors while mounds upon mounds of people gathered to experience “Trump Mania”. The southern festive atmosphere made it seem as if I was entering the SEC Football Championship game or a Kenny Chesney concert. The scene, to little surprise and much disappointment, was electric. Joined with me were fellow peers from Oakwood University, a Historically Black College in Huntsville, Alabama, and members of Oakwood’s NAACP chapter. Originally, chapter members wanted to attend the rally in peaceful protest. Our plan was to come dressed in all-black attire with expressive pro-equality posters in hand; however, we were counselled to attend the rally with a different approach–an approach that wouldn’t result in possible heckling, threats of violence, or worse. It bothered me that at a major United States Presidential event, honest citizens would be fearful of their lives for expressing sentiments of equality and justice. But I wasn’t surprised. As black HBCU students we were severely outnumbered. The highest form of physical diversity present at the rally was the difference of hair color amongst the vastly white majority. We were in a strange land.
My goal was to experience “Trump Mania” under a more investigatory approach. To quench my bewilderment, I was eager to find an answer to the question of how and why people could support such a rhetorically dangerous and unqualified Presidential candidate as Donald Trump. I spoke to a number of rally-goers and I learned that quite a few of them were just there to experience the show, while there were others – roughly 30,000 others – who seemed to have pledged allegiance to Mr. Trump. I met two longtime friends (pictured right) who happened to stand on opposing sides within the Republican Presidential race. The young man holding the Mexican national flag, to no surprise, staunchly opposed Trump’s “harsh immigration policies.” He supported Marco Rubio. Meanwhile, the American flag-holder believed there are “too many illegals” in the country. Consequently, he said he supports Trump because he’s “tired of lying politicians” and believes Mr. Trump “will do what he says.” Interestingly, the two of them agreed that immigration and ISIS were the most pressing issues of the 2016 Presidential election season.
As we entered the football stadium, to much irony, we were met with The Rolling Stone’s “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” blasting through the loudspeakers. Eventually, the program began and in Bible Belt fashion it opened with a prayer. The crowd of 30,000 turned silent as the reverend offered the most politically-angled prayer I’d ever heard in my life. He ended his prayer by saying, “Lord, bless the Trump campaign, the Trump family, and everyone present here today; and most of all, help each of us to be the person that you’ve called us to be. In Jesus’s holy name, Amen.” The reverend’s prayer reeked of hypocrisy as allegiances, under God, were being pledged to a man who preys on bigotry, prejudice, and facist ideals, and a campaign that celebrates bombing “the hell” out of our nation’s greatest opponents. The reverend couldn’t possibly have been praying to the same loving, compassionate, just, and merciful God that I follow. Instead, it seemed as if he was praying to the same God the early European settlers worshipped while stripping Native Americans of their land, or the God the colonists used to justify enslaving my African ancestors. As a Christian, I was embarrassed by how God was being sprinkled over an entree of nativism, sexism, and demagoguery. It happens often in this country, but that’s a different story for another time.
After hearing from a number of guest speakers, including the writers of the recent Benghazi film “13 Hours,” we were told to direct our attention towards to the western sky as Trump’s 757 plane flew by the stadium. The crowd went nuts, a tribute to Mr. Trump’s ability as a showman. We waited for his police-escorted arrival, an announcement made over the loudspeakers informed everyone that the rally was a “private event paid for by the Trump campaign,” and that all protesters or disrupters were subject to removal. They urged Trump supporters NOT to touch any disrupters but to yell and direct the police to remove the individuals from the stadium. The disclaimer was indicative of the environment cultivated by Trump’s rhetoric and the rowdy disposition of his supporters. I clearly saw why the announcement was needed when a few HBCU students from Huntsville’s Alabama A&M University decided to hold up a poster that read “Black Lives Matter!” during the rally. The place erupted at the moment the poster appeared. The same folks who were previously bowing their heads in prayer were now yelling, cursing, and threatening the A&M students. I
instantly grew detached from the event and became both emotional and fearful as I watched thousands of people yell “ALL LIVES MATTER!” in the direction of the students. Commotion overtook the area as folks rushed to stand in front of the students and cover their poster with TRUMP posters. I later learned that the students were called “monkeys” and told to “go clean our toilets.” But as descendants of Dr. King, John Lewis, Ella Baker and many others, my A&M brothers and sisters stood poised and collected in the face of fire. I was proud of their courageous demonstration and profoundly disturbed by the America I had been witnessing.
As Mr. Trump entered the stage to the tune of “Sweet Home Alabama,” I became disgusted. Mr. Trump’s power and influence became more apparent when the severely outnumbered A&M students decided to exit the stadium directly behind his podium. One man angrily ripped the poster from the hands of a student and spiked it to the ground. The crowd cheered riotously, you’d think the Crimson Tide had just scored the game-winning touchdown. They started a resounding “All Lives Matter” chant, and to my dismay, Mr. Trump joined them in the cheer! I gagged at how his affirmation set the crowd ablaze. Strangely enough, the moment placed me in a state of introspection. I felt like I was in a new America– the America I was warned of before moving to Alabama for college. There were three more instances in which protestors were ridiculed and escorted from the stadium. One black man draped in an American flag was escorted out by the police because he kept yelling loudly during Trump’s address. Other protesters, one holding a sign that read “We stand with our Muslim brothers and sisters,” and the other read “Vets against hate speech,” were also verbally attacked while exiting the stadium. The place was a madhouse. I saw desperation, hurt, and fury in the eyes of the many Trump supporters around me. I witnessed thousands of miseducated voices crying out, only to be heard by a man who’s likely using them for personal capital.
Today, we stand at very critical point in our nation’s history. Over the years we’ve witnessed incredible triumphs in our quest towards building the American Dream for all. The way Donald Trump has been feasting upon the prejudiced and manipulating the beliefs of the fearful constitutes a severe assault on the progression of this country. Threats of building a wall along the Mexican coastline transcend political banter, for walls within the hearts and minds of many have already been built. The ills of partisan politics and entrenched idealism have thwarted opportunities to move the country into a greater light. If we’ve truly had enough of the gridlock in Washington, the racial mudslinging, and multi-level inequality, then it’s up to us to fight for change. Walls of hate, separation, greed, and corruption have to come down.
By: Christopher Michael Johnson | Twitter: @chrismichjohn